Labour is struggling to repeat the 2017 comeback
Lexington's Mike Craven analyses this week's election campaign developments, as Labour struggles to repeat their 2017 surge in the polls.
At the end of a week which saw the first televised leaders’ debate, the closure of nominations for candidates and the publication of the Liberal Democrat and Labour manifestos, some trends are beginning to emerge.
The Conservative lead in the opinion polls looks steady. Recent polls have all put the Conservatives between 42% and 44%. This is largely the result Boris Johnson’s success in squeezing the Brexit Party, which started the campaign between 10% and 12% and is now at half that level following the announcement that they are only contesting half the seats.
Labour has moved up a few percentage points since the start of the election by squeezing the Lib Dem vote and converting some “don’t knows”. Their share hovers between 28% and 32%, but the Tory advance means the gap remains the same.
Labour points to the fact that the gap was similar at this stage in the 2017 campaign, yet it closed dramatically in the final three weeks. A key turning point then was the bounce that Labour received after its manifesto launch, followed by the shambles of the Tory announcement on social care. In setting out a radical programme of tax, spend and nationalisation yesterday, Labour’s hopes for the same impact again.
However, there are reasons to believe that lightning will not strike twice. First, the Liberal Democrat vote looks less fragile this time around, currently on 15%. This will not be enough for them to make a national breakthrough but they are likely to gain seats and may have some spectacular successes in individual constituencies, particularly in London where they could make gains at the expense of both Labour and the Conservatives.
Second, the Conservatives are running a more professional campaign. In 2017 Theresa May refused to take part in the televised leaders debates – a sign that her confidence was collapsing. Boris Johnson has not made the same mistake and opinion polls taken immediately after his head to head with Corbyn on Tuesday suggested a score draw. But given the broader state of the polls Labour needed a clear win.
Although Johnson has in many respects proved to be a surprisingly weak campaigner, he was effective in nailing his key proposition that the Conservatives need a majority to get Brexit done. Jeremy Corbyn in contrast could not reveal whether he will support a new ‘Labour deal’ in a second referendum, or back remain. This is proving to be a fatal weakness in his campaign.
Labour is desperate to talk about anything but Brexit and the policy-packed election manifesto launched on Thursday was an attempt to move the debate onto more comfortable ground. The platform is certainly radical, with a very large price tag, and the nationalisation proposals are the most radical since 1945. In crude terms, Labour has doubled the spending commitments it set out in the 2017 manifesto. John McDonnell insists that only big business and the top 5% of earners will pay more in new taxes but the very sharp critique of Labour’s plans issued by the IFS, which warns of lower wages and higher prices, means that narrative is under attack.
Regardless of surveys that show a superficial popularity of Labour’s most radical policies, the general sense is that this more intense re-run of the 2017 campaign strategy is not working. Current polls might not be that different from the situation at this stage in 2017, but nor are they that different from the position at this stage of the campaign in 1983. And that did not end well for Labour.
There is none of the energy and momentum of two years ago. Corbyn is no longer new. He has been leader for four years and voters have firmed up their (negative) views of him. The team beyond him, with the exception of McDonnell, is either ineffective or side-lined. Leading shadow ministers such as Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry have been kept off (or stayed off) the media in favour of leadership allies such as Shami Chakrabarti and Richard Burgon, who do not connect with voters.
That said, the volatility of modern politics means the final election outcome remains uncertain. Labour’s manifesto contained some powerful retail policies – not least an immediate 5% pay increase for all public sector workers – that will make the Tory campaign in northern and midlands seats that bit harder.
On Sunday the Conservatives will launch their own manifesto. The absence of any detailed policy on social care and Boris Johnson’s premature announcement of the National Insurance tax cut is a sign that they are approaching it more politically this time. But manifestos can easily backfire, as we saw in 2017. And as Paul Goodman notes on ConHome today, it doesn’t take much to go wrong for the Tories to fall short of a majority. Nonetheless, as in 2017, it is their election to lose.